Searching for the Tree of Babel: Linguistic Evolution May Shed Light on History

By Pickrell, John | Science News, May 25, 2002 | Go to article overview

Searching for the Tree of Babel: Linguistic Evolution May Shed Light on History


Pickrell, John, Science News


A picture is generally valued at 1,000 words. What might be the worth of an image of the 7,000 or so languages now spoken in the world? Scientists searching for patterns within this cacophony of lingoes are convinced that languages hold pivotal clues to questions about human history that other areas of study have been unable to answer. In their quest to demonstrate this new idea, these scientists are finding themselves in stiff debate with others who argue that the approach amounts to barking up the wrong tree.

The controversial approach treats languages as though they were biological species and applies analytical methods developed by evolutionary biologists. Although linguists previously have created trees of languages, they haven't used computational methods to rapidly reconstruct relationships between large groups of languages.

Anthropologists and other investigators are using their new, more extensive language trees to trace the historical relationships of different cultural groups, from people conversing in Gujarati and Hindi to those speaking Navajo and Quecha. These researchers claim that, with that information in hand, questions about migration patterns, agriculture, and other society-changing practices become answerable in new ways.

Language trees are useful for depicting relationships of communities in the past 5,000 to 10,000 years or so, a period too short to be resolved by genetics--and exactly the time for which anthropologists and archeologists are seeking new streams of data.

LINGUISTIC SPECIES When biologists build family trees among species, they look for shared characters--such as the vertebrate spine--or specific genetic sequences. Species with the greatest similarities are grouped to create a tree branch with several extensions. Then, those branches that share the most characters are put together into a bough. This tree of hierarchical relationships, known as a phylogeny, traces a path from ancestral species at the trunk to the most recently evolved species out on the twigs.

Charles Darwin alluded to the notion that languages evolve and diverge as species do. Like genetic systems, which are made up of nucleotides, genes, and individuals, says Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in England, languages have discrete units: letters, syllables, and words. Language, like a set of genes, is generally transmitted from parents to offspring. And just as mutations in DNA provide the basic biological variations on which natural selection thrives, changes also occur in languages. Variations in pronunciation or meaning are either rejected or preserved in the transfer of language from parents to their children.

Though natural selection per se doesn't act on new word variants, a form of cultural selection certainly does, says Pagel. For example, a catchier version of a word, such as aeroplane rather than flying machine, is more likely to persist.

For many decades, linguists used a tree approach, says Pagel. Comparisons, however, had generally been limited to a small number of languages, and the language analysts didn't take advantage of computer-based quantitative methods.

Russell Gray, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, notes that for as few as 10 languages, there are an astonishing 34 million possible trees that can be drawn. "For over 100 languages, you're talking about more possible trees than there are atoms in the universe," he adds. Now, Gray says, it's becoming possible to churn out trees for very large data sets.

"These methods are entirely appropriate," concurs Colin Renfrew, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in England. "Given that historical linguistics uses many discrete pieces of information, quantitative and technical methods of this sort are long overdue."

To test the mettle of the language-tree approach, researchers have been building hierarchies for Pacific islanders, sub-Saharan Africans, and Eurasians from Iceland to Bangladesh. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Searching for the Tree of Babel: Linguistic Evolution May Shed Light on History
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.